Google+ Blueprint for Football: October 2012

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Restructuring the Scottish Game

By Craig Easton

This is the second installment of a three part series about the future of Scottish football.  Parts one and two can be read here and here.

Editorial Note: These articles were written when Rangers financial troubles' were emerging but before anything had been decided regarding their league status.

The general  consensus  among  fans,  journalists,  players,  managers,  and  anyone  who  cares  to commentate on the state of Scottish football is that a restructuring of the league set-up is vital to the future of the game. At its inception in 1998, the SPL consisted of 10 teams, but for the 2000/01 this was increased to the current 12 team structure which is wholly unpopular.

Each team in the SPL plays 33 games before the league splits in half in April, when the top six and bottom six teams play their five remaining games against the sides in their section.   The bottom team is relegated while the top three qualify to play in Europe the following season.  Before I even delve into the pros and cons of this set-up, there is a glaringly obvious problem with this model - a lack of fairness.  The SPL tries to ensure that every team plays each other twice at home and twice away, but the split makes this numerically impossible.  For example, before the split, the teams will play each other three times.  Some teams will play certain opposition twice at home and once away, and vice versa. In theory, when the league splits, a team fighting relegation could look back on earlier fixtures  against those sides in the top half and argue a case that their campaign has been tougher if they’ve played superior opposition away from home more times than one of their fellow relegation contenders.

This is the foundation on why the league cannot be judged to be fair. The SPL is the only competition in Europe that operates an uneven split league format.  Imagine telling Alex Ferguson that he has to  visit  a team with a good home record more times than one of his fellow title contenders, while they (Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea, or whoever it may be) get to play them twice at home.  I don’t think Sir Alex would be too pleased if he looked back at the corresponding results come the end of the season and figured out those games contributed to Manchester United not winning the title.  It just wouldn’t happen.

However, that’s not the only argument against the current format.  The fact teams are still playing each other three, four and sometimes even five or six times a season (if they get drawn together in cup competitions) is a major  negative for most fans who would like to see a larger SPL. The players are also bored of the monotony of playing against each other so many times in a season.  It was one of the reasons why I enjoyed my time in England so much.  Playing a team once at home and once away keeps things fresh and interesting for both the players and the supporters.   Henry McLeish acknowledges this in his review of Scottish  football, and recognises there are multiple options for a new look SPL although worryingly, the 10 team format is one of the models discussed. The SPL’s Ian Blair admits, “If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, we  wouldn’t  do anything like we’ve got now and if we were running it purely for sport, we’d also do things differently; but this is a business as well as a sport”.

Unfortunately he’s right.  It’s not so easy just to rip it up and start again.  The financial implications weigh heavily on the decision making process - something Falkirk manager Steven Pressley sees as holding back progress.  He said, “I think every decision in the game at the top level is driven by TV money, not what is best for it as a whole.  We need to listen to supporters; 85% of them want the league structure to change”.

According to Alan Harris (chairman of the Scottish Council Supporters Direct) the vast majority of fans want a 16 or 18 team league and Stephen Thompson (Dundee United chairman and SPL board member) can understand this. “From  a football point of view most people would like to see a bigger league but financially it’s a completely different scenario altogether”, says Thompson.  “It’s difficult to get  the balance right and no-one can agree on anything at the moment; everyone’s finances are different, turnovers are different, fan base, debt, ambition.  What you would like to see footballing-wise is different from a financial perspective and it’s trying to strike that balance.”

Achieving that balance is made all the more difficult by the operational structure of the SPL.  The chairmen of the  12 SPL clubs are collectively responsible for any changes made concerning the business of the league.   The voting structure in place at the moment means that 11 out of the 12 teams all have to agree for any proposal to be passed and as you can imagine, that is a very rare occurrence, exacerbated by the dominant position of the Old Firm.  It doesn’t matter what topic is on the agenda - restructuring or the distribution of income from television rights; if Rangers and Celtic don’t agree with everyone else, then it won’t happen.  That might all change as the other 10 clubs  are making moves to push through proposals concerning the voting structure itself, which may result in a more democratic 9-3 majority coming into effect.

Taking some power away from the Old Firm will certainly give the other clubs more of a say regarding the future size of the SPL but, as Stephen Thompson stated earlier, there’s no guarantee that anything will be resolved.  The biggest question regarding change has to be: how many teams should be in the top league? Almost everyone I’ve spoken to that has a serious interest in the future of Scottish football, agree that this conundrum has to be addressed.

There are many possible permutations. The proposals for a larger SPL might be popular with supporters; however, some suggestions are more financially viable than others.   According to the calculations of SPL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster, there will be roughly £20m lost revenue by changing to a 16 or 18 team league. Money, he says, the game can’t afford to lose.  Ian Blair agrees with his boss and also argues that at this moment there isn’t enough quality across a broad enough spectrum to support a top tier of that size.  Steven Pressley disagrees.  “I think we need to get to about 18. I think that size of league gives clubs the opportunity to build.” He feels that in the current set-up, the standard of play and  development of players is suffering, at the expense of surviving for another season. He said, “We’ve got a  league where you can be sitting quite comfortably in fifth and then three or four games later you’re tenth and under pressure.  You’ve got a situation where managers are under real pressure and while someone has to sit at the bottom of the league, there needs to be a transitional period at clubs and a bigger league would help”.

I would love to see an SPL where teams only play each other twice a season but both the league and the clubs have a valid point. An 18 team set up would affect the financial situation that’s in place at the moment because there wouldn’t be the four Old Firm games that the TV deal hinges on.  Take away another two, or four full houses (depending on what half of the league they end up in) and the clubs will lose that extra revenue they usually get when the Old  Firm  visit. United’s Stephen Thompson  clarifies  the  reliance  on  Rangers  and  Celtic  with  this  example:  “When  we  played Inverness we took  £10,000 at the gate but when we play either of the Old Firm we take around £140,000”. Rightly or wrongly, clubs rely on this source of income, and budget accordingly. Thompson says, “I’m critical of the Old Firm, everyone has been...but we’ve got a £16m TV deal because of them and if we lost that every club in the SPL would be burst!”.  Journalist, Jim Traynor surmises, “The TV deal isn’t for the benefit of  Rangers and Celtic because they only get £1.2m from it, but the rest get £900,000, which is a lot of money for them”. Rangers and Celtic bring much needed revenue to the Scottish game and they both realise how much the other teams rely on them and they use this to their own advantage.   The SPL is merely a vehicle for the Old Firm to attempt to realise their European ambitions.

Jim Traynor believes a bigger SPL is the way forward; however, taking into account the financial implications, he realises it’s not easy.  A 14 team top league is his compromise.  In his model every team plays each other home and away, then the league splits evenly (seven and seven) with each team playing twelve fixtures thereafter which equates to a total of 38 games.  He thinks this format can satisfy most people.  He says, “You still get the four Old Firm games that the TV want, with the final one being sold at a premium along with play-offs for Europe and relegation to try and make up some of the money which will be lost by having two more teams in the league”.  Ian Blair can also see  the merits of a 14 team SPL, while Stephen Thompson would stick with the twelve and introduce play-offs to give another team from the First Division a chance of winning promotion.

Play-offs are an excellent way of generating excitement toward the end of a season. The fans respond to  cup final like occasions while the games give teams something to play for. They encourage  more  competition while at the same time giving the clubs involved a chance to earn some  extra  income  which  could  help  them  if  they  win  promotion,  or  to  re-build  for  another challenge  the  following  season. In  England  the  play-offs  are  a  success. There  are  fewer meaningless games even in a league of 24, and I myself have been in a position with five or six games to go where a good run from mid-table could have resulted in my team achieving a much sought after play-off place.  It’s not unusual for the SPL title to be decided before the split or earlier and, while this season the fight for European places has been interesting, the title is normally a foregone conclusion between the Old Firm.

SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan doesn’t think size is the issue.  He’s more concerned about the quality of the football, stating, “We’ve got 42 teams, would we really have that amount if we were starting again?”.

He thinks that the quality of football in Scotland suffers because there are too many teams operating as professional clubs compared with the population of just under 6 million, and I agree.  Regan admits, “The biggest challenge for us is the gap between the First Division and the SPL which I think is too wide, and it  means that teams that get relegated like Falkirk and Hamilton struggle to keep their infrastructure in place”.  The SPL’s Ian Blair also notes the disparity between the two leagues and says, “We have to find a way of narrowing the gap financially between the bottom of the SPL and the top of the First Division”. He  echoes Regan when he describes relegation as “financially devastating”, and wants to help convince clubs in the top tier to give up some money and distribute it more evenly and into the league below, while also making sure that parachute payments are increased for those who are relegated to “soften the blow”. Falkirk manager Stephen Pressley is well aware of the financial gulf.  When they were relegated two years ago he had to reduce his playing budget by 75% - the whole club was affected.

Forget about the financial implications for a second.  Managers, players, and according to Pressley, most importantly fans, all hope for progress. “We’re driven by the TV money and the four Old Firm games and forgetting about the supporters.   A reality check will come when the TV money disappears and clubs are left wondering, ‘Where are the supporters?’  Well, you neglected them for the last 10 years.”  He continues, “The fans aren’t always right and they don’t always know the ins and outs but in any other business, if your customers are  telling you something and you ignore them, eventually they’ll turn their back on you.”

Scottish football can’t afford to allow that to happen.   Attendances are falling and in the current economic  climate, anyone who chooses to spend their money on attending a football match is making a major decision.

There are other activities vying for that hard earned cash, and at the moment going to a match isn’t necessarily the most attractive way to spend a large amount of a supporter’s  weekly wage. On average, ticket prices are around the £20 mark with most clubs charging  closer to £30 for derbies and Old Firm matches because they know people will pay a premium for these.   On the whole, season tickets are good value for money.   Hibs chairman Rod Petrie, says that it works out at £12 a game if you invest in one at Easter Road, but there is no such discount for the travelling fan.   Adding up travel costs and food, following your club around the country is an expensive business.   A possible incentive to get more away fans through the gates could be to offer discounts to anyone who is a season ticket holder, but what most fans want to see is a reduction in prices across the board.

Ian Blair acknowledges that attendances are generally falling.  However, he points out that relative to population, more people go to watch top class football in Scotland than anywhere else in Europe. That’s a surprising statistic and he understands it has to be taken in context. He says that while there are roughly the same number of fans going to games now as there were in the late sixties and early seventies, not as many are supporting their local teams as  Blair did back then.  “I’m a Morton fan for my sins”, he admits, and says there is a “Huge polarisation toward the Old Firm”.  He’s not wrong. Supporters buses leave from towns and cities all over the country, ferrying Rangers and Celtic fans to Ibrox and Celtic Park or wherever else they might be playing that day.   Both those clubs and their fans will argue that their large travelling support is  what’s helping to keep some clubs afloat and this is hard to deny, but if more people supported their local team instead of either of the Old Firm, then the clubs wouldn’t have to rely on them as much.

With ticket prices no more than €20 (£16) Germany knows where its priorities lie.  Without doubt, the fans come  first, and it’s no surprise the Bundesliga has the highest average attendance of Europe’s five major leagues.  That reasonable ticket price looks an even better deal when you take into account that it doubles as a free rail pass.  It would have cost a good deal less to soak up the title winning atmosphere on the world’s largest terracing, Dortmund’s Sud Tribune, than it would have taking in a Hibs game at Easter Road or any other SPL ground this season - and incredibly most in the First Division as well.  The supporters aren’t treated as a commodity like they often are in Britain, but are thought of as the “core value” of clubs according to the  Bundesliga chief executive Christian Seifert (talking to Jamie Jackson in an article for The Guardian two years ago).

Borussia Dortmund have recently been crowned German Champions for the second season in a row; however, three different teams have had their hands on the title in the previous four seasons. There hasn’t been a German Champions League winner for a decade, but the domestic league is certainly competitive. The winner of the 18 team  Bundesliga wasn’t decided until the third last week of the 2011/12 season, while the battle for European places went right to the wire before it was decided which teams would qualify for either Champions League or Europa League football next season. At the other end, with two sides going down and a third entering a play-off with teams from Bundesliga 2, there was plenty of excitement to keep fans of the bottom clubs on the edge of their seats almost until the final game of the season.

Scottish football can look to the Bundesliga for inspiration.  It’s true the fan base of most German clubs are not only large but extremely loyal.  Instead of focusing on TV money, the clubs look after their support and make going to a game an attractive prospect as well as value for money. The owners have also curtailed wages and united to focus on youth, and while this might limit their European ambitions in the short-term, they are once again producing talented players to revive the national team.  Steven Pressley urges Scottish clubs to learn from them; “The example we need to take from the German model is of all the clubs actually working together in the best interest of their game.  In this country, it’s all about self-interest”.

The relationships between the SFA, SPL, and SFL are stronger, and dare I say it, friendlier than they have ever been. I feel there’s a collective attitude in place to work together in order to take the game forward.   However, the future of the Scottish domestic game lies in the main part with the chairmen of the SPL clubs who ultimately decide which path it takes.  According to Pressley, this is a major problem in itself. He said “You  can have no idea about football, buy a football club because you’re wealthy and then have a major influence on the future of our game.”  He would like to see the voting structure abolished and an independent board set up to make the important decisions or at the very least for the SFA to take a more active role.

The Scottish FA have recently shown their intention is to do just that.  Along with the SPL, they are keen to introduce UEFA’s Financial Fair Play initiative which will limit clubs’ spending on players wages.  While most are managing their finances better than ever, the cases of Hearts and Rangers this season underline how important it is to put some sort of legislation in place.  Stewart Regan has also not so subtly hinted to clubs that if a decision is not reached on the voting structure soon, then the Scottish FA will take a more active role.   I think that a governing body should be pushing its members to make decisions for the good of the game - in fact it’s their responsibility, and I think Stewart Regan understands this.   The SFA and the SPL have been criticised for standing idly by while the game has deteriorated over the years and both organisations will admit to being on the periphery for too long - but they can only do so much.  Scottish football is largely in the state it is now due to the decisions made by the clubs who play in its top league.  History will judge them for what has gone before, but they have an opportunity to put it right.  It just remains to be seen when, and if, they take it.

Craig Easton is a professional football player with more than two hundred appearances in the Scottish top flight - most of them with Dundee United - and with 22 Scottish Under 21 caps.  Currently at Torquay, he has just finished a degree in Professional Sports Writing and Broadcasting at Staffordshire University.  He can be followed on Twitter.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Next Stage for Scottish Football

by Craig Easton

This is the second installment of a three part series about the future of Scottish football.  Part one can be read here.

In the past, Scottish football has produced International stars capable of playing at the highest level. Players like Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness for example, were the driving force behind both Liverpool’s domestic and European success in the 70’s and 80’s.   I could go a bit further back to periods in Scotland’s footballing history when Aberdeen, Dundee United, Celtic and Rangers were forces to be reckoned with within the European sphere and homegrown players competed with the very best the continent had to offer.   There was a time when it was almost a requirement of any successful English side to have at least one Scottish player in its ranks.  However, at international level those same players failed to display their talents beyond the group stage of any World Cup. On a positive note, at least they qualified on a regular basis, although it’s a widely held belief that Scotland should have achieved more with the talent at their disposal.

The national side currently sit at number 56 in the FIFA rankings.  I think it’s hard to attach much significance to this system (apart from maybe the top fifteen or so places) especially the further you go down the list. However, there  are tangible truths which are a more telling indictment of Scotland’s current International footballing position.   Scotland have failed to qualify for the group stages of a World Cup or European Championships since 1998 and 1996 respectively and don’t look like bucking that trend any time soon.   While the overwhelming majority of the current Scotland squad ply their trade down south, some even in the self-proclaimed best league in the world, none play  regularly for any of the major contenders; sidelined national team captain and Manchester United midfielder, Darren Fletcher the only exception.

The Scottish FA has put together a new Player Performance Strategy which outlines how they plan to develop the best young talent from the ages of 12 to 16.  But what happens after that when the lucky few are propelled into the cut and thrust of professional football?   Not enough players are making the transition to first team football and  those who do aren’t good enough to help our national side qualify and compete in major championships. That’s  not  to say there aren’t any talented young Scottish players. On my return to the SPL, after spending six years in the lower leagues south of the border, I was impressed with quite a number of the new batch coming through. But where do they fit into the Scottish structure and does one even exist to help them get to the next level?

Scotland Manager Craig Levein and National Performance director Mark Wotte understand the need to develop a unique footballing identity.   You can’t just conjure one up or copy a template. The Dutch and the Spanish have had theirs firmly in place for decades.  Jumping on the Barcelona La Masia bandwagon without having a clear direction  of our own is not the way to go either, although there are certainly lessons to be learned from the youth set-up of the best team in world club football.  The Scottish FA’s Chief Executive Stewart Regan, understands that there are a whole series of things that contribute to the making of an elite player and wants those that Scotland produce in the future to be recognisably Scottish - in a good way!  He explains, “There has to be a mindset or a philosophy of what we’re trying to develop Scottish players into, and at the moment it’s all over the place.  It’s down to the individual club to set the agenda on how they want you to play and what Mark is keen to do is develop a Scottish style of play”.  It’s hard to argue with Regan when he points out that there is very little “artistry” or “science” to the Scottish game. He backs Wotte and Levein’s attempt to try to establish those credentials associated with a passing game like the Dutch, Spanish and Brazilians have done over the years, but admits; “That doesn’t just happen overnight, you have to develop that”.

Former Rangers player and current Ajax manager, Frank De Boer, delivered an honest summary of Scottish football in Jim Traynor’s recent documentary ‘A Match For Europe’ when he said, “What I saw from my time in Scotland is that they don’t care much about the technical side, it’s more about the aggressive stuff like roll your sleeves up and go for it.  At the highest level the technical skills are so important.”  For too long, the template for Scottish football has been based around the virtues of aggression, physicality, work-rate and determination, with technical ability sometimes considered a bonus or merely an afterthought.  Every team has to have a balance of all those characteristics, but football in this country has neglected the latter, and that balance has to be addressed.  I think that mindset is changing to some degree, but our nation has enjoyed its position as the underdog that sporadically punches above its weight for too long.  I think every team has to play to its strengths but not to the detriment of the development of their players.

As a member of the Scottish international squad from the schools set-up and every SFA youth level all the way  through to the national under-21 side, I recall us relying heavily on those qualities - particularly in the younger age bracket.  I’ve got to be honest, it worked up to a point.  I remember a team-talk from a manager before a game against England that went along the lines of: “They’ve got three lions on their jersey, we only need one!”.  Cue an almighty roar and the head-butting of walls - or something to that effect.   And it actually worked. On that occasion, we outfought  the  ‘Auld Enemy’ and with a fair bit of skill thrown in for good measure, we earned a draw.   It could have been a sweet victory had we produced a bit more quality in front of goal.  Over the years we also held our own against the Dutch, the Italians, the Portuguese, Croatians and French (I don’t think we had a “Our lion beats their cock speech!”) but I often had the feeling that we were playing right at the edge of our limits or beyond just to compete.  I loved the challenge, revelled in it, and was very proud that we could achieve respectable results against supposedly superior opposition.   It didn’t matter to me that it was largely down to our  attitude and work-rate and at the time I felt the experience  of  playing  international  football  was  making  me  a  better  player. However,  the ‘Braveheart’ mentality can only take you so far and there comes a time when the opposition develop that same level of combativeness.  Ally that to a generally higher level of technical ability, and our nation’s club and international sides are all too often found wanting when competing on a global level.

It’s impossible to rely on natural battling instincts alone, especially in the modern era. Tough tackling and physical play is not tolerated by officials the same way as it was a decade or so ago but the high pressure game that has been associated with Scottish (and British) teams for so long has been taken to a whole new level by  the Spanish, and most notably Barcelona and Athletic Club Bilbao. Last season, Falkirk manager Steven Pressley blooded 14 players who graduated from his club’s impressive youth set-up, and he believes we can use the Spaniards as an overall example of how the game should be approached.   He told me, “I look at Spanish football and I think that has to be our bench-mark.  I’ve mentioned to our players that Athletic Club Bilbao (ACB) are 80% academy”. That’s an incredible statistic.

Another relevant one is that ACB have a policy of signing only players who are born in the Basque region, an area which borders north-eastern Spain and south- western France and has a population of just over three million. Their  focus has to be on youth. Marcelo Bielsa, Athletic Club’s Argentine manager, masterminded some excellent Europa League performances last season - his side’s demolition of Manchester United over two legs the pick of the bunch.  Even though they were sitting in a modest position in La Liga, ACB’s style of play made a big impression throughout Europe, no less on Pressley.  The ex Scotland International  is a big admirer of their philosophy. He  enthuses, “Athletic Club Bilbao hunt the ball down better and more aggressively than any British club. They  play the short passing game so that when they lose possession, they’re close to the ball and are able to hunt in packs to win it back, with seven or eight players in close proximity to each other.”   However he understands it’s difficult to play that way without having a high level of technical ability and thinks Spanish football is leading the way not only in producing successful teams with this style, but also in the entertainment stakes. “It’s a brilliant league to watch because teams pressure the game so well that the players have to be able to deal with the ball in tight areas - it makes for fast, exciting, quality football.”

Former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola made it clear that he thinks Bielsa is a top coach who he can learn from, but it is the former who has achieved considerable success playing what is beginning to be  considered  ‘The  Spanish  Way’. It’s  no  coincidence  that  players  at  both  clubs  look  so comfortable in their roles in the team; for most of them the style of play we are now witnessing has been a part of their footballing education from a young age.  Even those who don’t come through the academies are signed because they have qualities that will benefit the team and will fit easily into the system. You can take it to another level entirely and look at that continuity  which has helped make Spain World Cup winners.  These players may be from different teams but are familiar with a certain style, so with a little bit of tweaking, Barca players like Xavi and Iniesta, can come together  with  Madrid’s  Alonso  and  Ramos  and  ACB’s  Llorente,  to  combine  with  ease  at international level.

Steven Pressley wants to instill that same continuity throughout his club.   After Falkirk suffered relegation from  the SPL in 2010, he admits he was forced into focusing on young players and homegrown talent in particular.  The club had to make massive cut-backs, especially on the playing front, and Pressley has wholeheartedly put his faith in youth.  He looks on the situation as a positive step for both himself and the club and admits that it’s changed his outlook as a manager.  He said, “It’s been the best thing to happen to me because I believe in young players more now than I ever did.  It was a long term strategy of the club but it’s been thrust upon us”. Last season Falkirk finished in third place in the first tier of the Scottish Football League.  The squad has an average age of 21 and is  predominantly Scottish, many of whom made their way through the Academy headed up by former player, Craig McPherson.  The young side won last year’s Challenge Cup but more impressively, gave a good account of themselves against Celtic in the semi-final of the League Cup, defeating the other half of The Old Firm, Rangers, along the way.  Pressley hopes to continue the early success his youngsters have tasted (some already have almost 200 professional  games under their belt) and realises a solid structure has to be in place if more players are to progress to the first team.  “If you don’t have that along with a real in-depth style of play, it’s harder to get them in your team earlier...our 16, 17, 18, and 19 year olds play absolutely identical to our first team.  We have a style of play where there are very few grey areas - we work on it relentlessly.  The players know their roles and responsibilities within the team and  have a clear picture of how our team play”.  Because of that he says that the transition for his players from the youth team and ‘reserves‘ has been easier and adds, “They all know the trigger points and positions relating to the ball, both when we’ve got it and when we haven’t”.

As a manager and a coach Pressley understands the importance of his role to not only help his young players develop their technical ability, but also their tactical knowledge.  I’ve  noticed that a number of players who are promoted into first teams are often lacking in the basics of the latter and it often hinders  their progression. Pressley isn’t surprised. “I think we’ve got so many young players in this country, that ability wise are very good, but at a young age don’t have the know- how.”  He accepts that they won’t be experienced but they must have a clear understanding of how the team functions.   He adds, “To get them playing regularly in the first team, you’ve got to give them that”.  I’m not sure whether enough Scottish managers and coaches spend enough time on that side of the game, while a lot of players tend to switch off when faced with what some perceive to be boring tactical training sessions.   Pressley agrees, “We do have good managers in Scotland but I think our game here is tactically way behind the Spanish”.

With their own facilities part of the state-of-the-art training complex at Stirling University, and an Academy which has already produced more than a teams worth of promising talent, the future looks bright for Falkirk.  Pressley is well  aware it’s a work in progress, and that this season they’ve exceeded expectations.  He isn’t getting too carried away.  He said, “We’re way ahead of schedule, but this can’t be an overnight project, it’s for the long-term and the problem with too many football clubs is short term vision; it takes time to build a team, build a culture and to fully build a club”.  I am in no doubt that he is on his way to achieving his objective.

The route for young players to progress into the first team at their club is different now than it was when I made my  breakthrough at Dundee United. Back then, you were given a three year apprenticeship with the theory that by the end of that time, or ideally earlier, you were ready to make the transition to playing regular first team football.  I was lucky enough to make my first team debut at 17 and I believe the games I played in the reserve team alongside experienced first team professionals like Dave Bowman and Owen Coyle stood me in good stead to make the step up.  It was seen as a big achievement to be promoted to the reserve squad. Since the clubs voted to disband the reserve league at the end the 2008/09 season that sense of progression hasn’t been there and I feel that’s resulted in a generation of players whose development has suffered.

The clubs have voted unanimously for the implementation of the under-20 League proposed by Mark Wotte, the SFA Performance Director, and the competition will begin next season.  He sees it as helping to bridge the gap between the current under-19 team and the first team squad, but admits that ideally he’d have liked to have remedied  that by bringing back the reserve league proper. Unfortunately, the feedback he garnered from club chairmen was  telling him that having three teams was unaffordable.  The plan in place at the moment sees the under-19 league disbanded and the age-group extended by a year, with the option to play a number of over age players in a weekly competitive format.  At the moment those players who don’t feature on a Saturday have to rely on the sporadic organisation of ‘bounce’ games for match fitness.   I’ve played in a few of these this season when I was returning from injury and while a good exercise to get some game time under your belt, most games were played on training pitches which are not always the best surfaces and often dilute the match scenario they’re trying to be create.  We didn’t even have any linesmen for one such game. As a player, you’re trying (and expected) to approach these games in a professional manner.  These factors make it more difficult so, on the face of it, an organised competitive league looks like a step in the right direction.

I can understand the compromise, and I welcome the fact that younger players are going to be playing alongside, and tested against, more experienced opposition, but my first reaction to the proposal was that  if  there are a number of players over the age of 20 who haven’t played on a Saturday, where do they fit in?  If the clubs have to organise ‘bounce‘ games as well then it would defeat the purpose of the new league.  As yet, there has been no decision on the number of overage players allowed.  Conversely, too many overage players would have an impact on the playing time afforded to the younger players - the ones this proposal has being specifically aimed at improving.

Terry Butcher, manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, thinks the system already worked pretty well. He said, “With us, when a player gets to 18 or 19 he should be in my first team squad or very close to it.   If not, then he’ll be released to go and play somewhere else”. He uses the exciting young talent emerging from our game at the moment as evidence of not needing to tamper too much with what was in place; “We’ve got a lot of good young players coming through and they’re playing down south in the Premier League and the Championship as well as the SPL. Our international under-21 side is doing well and guys like Celtic’s Jamie Forrest are really blossoming, so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Steven Pressley thinks it’s a welcome step forward and relishes testing his young players in the new set-up.  He said, “You will be playing 16 and 17 year olds against experienced players which is brilliant for their development - it’ll continuously challenge them”.  Butcher understands this but is also mindful of the negatives and cautions, “Sometimes they aren’t ready to play against these older players - it can destroy them and knock them back”.  There’s obviously a balance to be sought but there’s no doubting that a more organised and competitive format will create a more realistic game type atmosphere, something which is difficult to recreate with a ‘bounce‘ game.  Pressley agrees, “I think our kids are starved of that and because of it I think we produce players who are mentally soft that can’t deal with pressure.  They need to playing in stadiums in front of fans, under floodlights”.

There are changes underway and I’m sure there will be more to come.  Only time will tell if these impact directly on the quality of players that Scotland produces in the future. In the shorter term, I hope the good young talent that has sprung forth can progress to the next level and fulfill their potential, if not only to help the nation to compete at a higher level, but to begin to re-establish its footballing identity that has gradually faded over time.  For that to happen there has to be a structure that will help a player to be able to thrive in the modern game, and while the Scottish FA are keen to play a major role in doing so, the clubs have to look at doing the same.  It comes down to individual managers and chairmen who have to look at the bigger picture.   They have to understand that youth development mustn’t only be seen as a cut-price lifeline or a short-term fix, but as the  building block for sustained future success.

Craig Easton is a professional football player with more than two hundred appearances in the Scottish top flight - most of them with Dundee United - and with 22 Scottish Under 21 caps.  Currently at Torquay, he has just finished a degree in Professional Sports Writing and Broadcasting at Staffordshire University.  He can be followed on Twitter.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Win A Copy of The Latest Blizzard Magazine

Here at Blueprint for Football we are huge fans of Blizzard magazine. With some of the finest writers around talking about topics that are close to their heart you are guaranteed a fantastic read each time round.

It is why we strongly recommend downloading an issue if you've got an e-reader - their pay-as-much-as-you-want model means that you can get it for as little as €0.01 - or else if you want a taster take a look at the article Coaching the Brain that they kindly allowed us to reproduce.

Alternatively, if you prefer to have a physical copy of the latest issue, you can enter our competion to win just that. All you have to do is to like one of the posts up on the Blueprint for Football Facebook page by the end of October and you will automatically be entered into the draw.

If you want to go a step further, we'd really appreciate it if you could actually like the page but that is not a requirement to enter the competition.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Future of Scottish Football

by Craig Easton

This is the first installment of a three part series about the future of Scottish football.

I might be stating the obvious here, but the standard of Scottish football is not good enough. Scotland last qualified for a major championship in 1998.  Even then, they finished bottom of their group at the World Cup in  France. Over a decade spent in the International wilderness of non- qualification, equates with not producing enough talented individuals to enable the national team to compete at the top level.

Fortunately Stewart Regan, the Scottish FA Chief Executive, understands where the country is in terms of the standard of the national game and the players playing it.  But his vision extends further than the development of Scottish footballers.  He thinks there are  more basic underlying issues that need to be addressed, before trying to tackle grass roots development alongside the problems faced at a professional level.  “The areas I think Scottish Football really needs to look into for the future are the things like Physical Education,” said Regan.  “On a weekly basis there are fewer  than two hours a week of P.E. which is just not enough for kids.” He’s not the only person to link the demise of the nation’s footballing talent with the lack of emphasis on sport in the Scottish school curriculum.

The sportswriter and broadcaster, Jim Traynor, has made two definitive documentaries on the state of the Scottish game, and he believes that the problem is deeper than the parlous state of school sports.  Social factors can also contribute to fewer kids making the grade.  “Social depravation is rife and it’s not like a couple of generations ago  when people didn’t have a lot but they had a community spirit, now you don’t have that.” He believes such  deprivation has contributed to a society where many of today’s working class parents, often struggling with  alcohol and drug problems  themselves,  lack  both  the  parenting  skills  and  money  to  support  young  aspiring footballers. Those living below the poverty line don’t have a chance, as sport and football is the last thing on a parent’s mind.

Traynor understands that in the past the lifeblood of the Scottish game was kids playing on the streets.  Top talent like Johnston, Baxter and Dalglish honed their skills in the housing schemes, but he dismisses the continued romanticism attached to that era as “sentimental tosh”.  Those days will never be recreated, partly because there are too many cars on the streets nowadays.  The cul-de-sac in the Airdrie council estate where I grew up played host to  some truly epic games of football involving kids who lived two or three streets away, but Craighead Street now resembles a car park. It’s hard enough finding a space when I visit my mum and dad, never mind having a kick about. Traynor himself notes that, “The only way we can get back to that sort of street environment where everyone is included is in taking it back to schools and making it a proper part of the curriculum”. He adds, “You need to give  these kids something they can believe in. If a kid can get into his school’s  football  team  then  it  gives  him  something  to  aim  for. I  think  football  has  got  a responsibility”.

The Scottish Government recognises that responsibility must be shared, especially when a  healthier generation could benefit society way beyond the realm of sport.  In his Review of Scottish Football, former First Minister Henry McLeish called for “local government, Scottish football and the private sector to work together to create a powerful investment vehicle”. A large part of those funds will go toward addressing the problem of our woefully inadequate  football facilities. Stewart Regan is confident the “powerful relationship” the SFA are building with the government (Sports Minister Shona Robison in particular) will make a big difference.  Holyrood has certainly made a substantial commitment, contributing £25m toward the creation of a National Performance Centre which has football at its core.  It will be home to the National Football Academy, and the commitment to the project  by  both  the  Government  and  the  Scottish  FA  (who  have  earmarked  £15m  for  the performance strategy over the next four years) is an encouraging example of people in power acting on McLeish’s recommendations.

That sort of investment is a step in the right direction, as are the three full-size 3G indoor pitches built since 2009.   These provide vital, year round access for youngsters and teams right up to the professional level, specifically when  the weather is not conducive to outdoor football. But as a nation with football as its first sport,  it’s not enough. 

We are embarrassingly ill-equipped, as Stewart Regan explains.  “In Iceland, the population is around three hundred thousand people, and they have 22 full size indoor football facilities.  In Scotland, we have three for a population of six million.  With a winter that seems to be getting worse and lasting longer, we need to be trying to look after our kids’ development”.  Kids aren’t the only ones who benefit.  Our professional clubs struggle for adequate training facilities whenever the Scottish weather  turns  ugly, and will often travel great distances to use one of these centres; but in my opinion, whilst a useful tool  in the development of young players, there’s no substitute for playing on grass.

That said, when the cold weather comes in, these facilities are worth every penny. The overall standard of astro-turf pitches has certainly improved.  However, the Toryglen facility, situated yards from Hampden Park in Glasgow, doesn’t come up to scratch.  It was the first of its kind and while the pitch has the same  dimensions  as Celtic Park, the surface has deteriorated badly. A major advantage in having an artificial surface is that the ball runs truer and more predictably. There should be no bobbles like you often get on grass. Hence the Scottish FA’s willingness to coach more of our youngsters on 3G or 4G pitches.

Having played a bounce game for Dunfermline Athletic on the Toryglen pitch in January, I can tell you that is not always the case.  It was one of the poorest astro-turf pitches I’ve ever played on, and it didn’t do the calf injury that I was recovering from at the time any good whatsoever.  So while we do need more of these facilities, and there are  plans for more to be built in the near future, the authorities and our governing body must make sure they are of a high standard and are maintained properly.  Otherwise the money spent will be going to waste.

The lack of good facilities was highlighted in his review, but Henry McLeish also noted that there is a problem with  access to some existing infrastructure. That’s why Stewart Regan wants to use schools to their full potential.  He’s challenged the government to make school playing fields and sports halls available to use after 3 o’clock.  It’s a basic idea of how to get better use out of existing facilities. Obviously there might be concerns over staffing issues, but it’s  a  sensible short-term attempt to alleviate the problem.

The report  acknowledges  there  have  been  improvements  at  a  grass-roots  level,  but  the  focus thereafter has to be on the development of young players that can come through and benefit our game at both club and national  level. Starting this August, the Scottish FA aims to do this by enrolling 20 of the best 12 to  16 year olds from seven regions across the country into Regional Performance Schools. Over a four year period, the  youngsters will receive a minimum of five coaching sessions a week, focusing on skills and development.   Prominent youth coaches and four ex-players make up the team of seven coaches, each assigned to an individual school.   They are tasked with the development of these players during this vital stage of their progression, working together with  clubs and the school to provide the kids with more quality time with a football alongside their normal education.   The idea was borne from a successful pilot in Falkirk, and the first ever Performance Director, Mark Wotte, hopes that after the seven schools are up and running, they can increase that to 10 or 12.

The fact that the Scottish FA have created a position specifically to monitor the direction of player performance  shows  how serious they are about tackling the youth development issue. It’s not surprising, considering the Review recommends applying the 10,000 hour rule (popularised by author Malcolm Gladwell) as the quality practice time needed over ten years to become an expert in your field.  Mark Wotte breaks it down: “You need to give kids six to eight training sessions a week if you want them to improve”...“10,000 hours is  for  athletes in individual sports, but I think in football, if you can give them 6,000 to 7,000 hours of quality contact time with the ball in ten years (which is 12 to 15 hours a week) then that’s already an improvement”.

Fulfilling the recommended number of practice hours is all well and good, but the standard of coaching the players receive is critical.  When I was younger, coaching schools were rare.  I  went to football training with my boys club, Boys Brigade team or school team, and was lucky enough to have managers, coaches and a father who placed emphasis on ball skills and passing.  However, a widely held criticism of youth coaches is that too many neglect the technical side of the game in favour of success and winning trophies.  Mark Wotte explains the SFA’s coaching philosophy:  “I want the coaches to encourage them to play more as a free player - especially the 6 to 12 year olds. You can’t put an eight year old in a harness, he has to be free to do what he thinks is best, and when a  player  doesn’t  make  the  right  decision  you  can  ask  them  what  else  they  might  have  done differently. Coaches need to know  the  ages and the stages”. He expands, “Focusing on the technical side and playing small-sided games with not much space will allow them to develop their skills in a natural way for a game situation - let them play forever”.

According to the Scottish FA’s player pathway, at 13 years of age competition will kick in and trophies will be  contested, but I think this is a little bit too late. I would argue that a winning philosophy should be fostered from an earlier age to encourage kids to aspire to be the best.   As long as it doesn’t take over from the main focus, which has to be the technical development of the player, I can’t see anything wrong with nurturing a desire to win.   Jim Traynor agrees.   He says, “Firstly you have to make it enjoyable, then introduce incentives and the natural instincts will come through.  You won’t achieve unless you want to be a winner, don’t curb that.  The Scottish FA keep saying that winning is not important, but it is important”.

It’s a radical programme, similar to some of the most successful academies on the continent, and although Wotte wasn’t the man to come up with the idea (that was Jim Fleeting), he feels his past experience makes him an excellent choice to oversee this new venture.  The Dutchman has worked at just about every level in various capacities. He’s managed in most tiers in Holland including numerous seasons in the Eredivise, was Director of Football at Feyenoord, and Academy Director at Southampton before taking over the reins at the St. Mary’s Stadium for a short spell in 2009.   But it’s his earlier experiences with youth that Wotte notes as standing him in good stead for his current role.  He said, “In my early years I was a P.E. teacher as well as academy manager, and I linked the two together in a sort of performance school twenty years ago, where the boys trained six or seven times in a week, which was revolutionary back then, and that idea was also adapted by other clubs in Holland.”  The Dutch FA, the clubs and the education authority work together to school the elite players close to the clubs they are attached to.  For example, Feyenoord take the best players in an 80km radius and have a school close to their ground where they educate them and coach them on a daily basis.   They’ve been voted the best youth Academy in The Netherlands two years in a row, and Assistant manager Giovanni Van Bronkhurst proudly states that 80% of his current first team are products of the youth system.

It’s not only Holland that has a reputation for consistently producing world-class players through an academy system.   Germany’s humiliation at Euro 2000, where they finished bottom of their group, prompted their clubs and the DFB (German football’s Governing body) to get together and tackle the problem head on. They focused on youth, and  are now reaping the rewards with young homegrown players populating the Bundesliga and also contributing to the rebirth of the National team.  In his BBC documentary, ‘A Match For Europe’, Jim Traynor uses Germany as an example of the benefits of focusing on youth, but notes that it was also down to necessity as well as choice. He said,  “Despite financial hardships caused by faltering broadcast deals, significant funds were devoted to youth development even at the expense of wages in the Bundesliga, which in turn helped reduce the number of foreigners  playing in the top division, and created opportunities for young players to play in the first team”.  He cites Werder Bremen as a particular success story with wider reaching benefits for Germany’s domestic game.   40 teams are linked to Werder Bremen and 100 players from that academy are scattered throughout the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2.   He states: “That’s what an academy should do.  The players who don’t make it at a particular club should be populating a lower league”.

While the performance schools are in their infant stages and it’ll be years before their worth can be fully evaluated (the benchmark being how many players go on to play professionally) I think it’s an overdue step in the right direction.   I still remember my trip to Clairefontaine in France as part of the Scotland Under 16 squad in the early 90‘s.  We stayed and trained on the lush green pitches at the French  Football Federation’s elite academy, and the experience opened my eyes to a proper football education partnership.
While we always had Largs as a training base for our national teams, I always wondered what it would be like to have a set-up for our best players that not only educated them, but where the daily routine revolved around structured football coaching.  I can only imagine what the standards are like at today’s most famous youth academy, Barcelona’s new Masia (the Oriol Tort Training Center) and whilst our clubs are keen to follow this and similar models, it’s not so simple.  Stewart Regan explains: “It’s more the principles than a carbon copy.  I think in an ideal world we’d love to have our own Clairefontaine and our own premier schools of excellence at club level, but it’ll come down to cash and availability.   We can’t be responsible for every single child playing football in Scotland, but we can develop an elite pathway for those who are going to play for the National team.”

Making sure the best players are selected is key to the whole programme, and Regan recognises this. “Around  the age of 11 years old we’re identifying the most talented kids in Scotland. In addition to that we’re organising Regional Performance Squads as well as the schools to bring the best of the best together across the seven regions.”  He continues,  “They will then play inter-squad matches which will allow us to pick our national squad at that age group.”  Mark Wotte adds, “It’s our obligation to the talented players.  From the trial games, we’ve selected an A and a B squad with 22 players in each, because at 15 years old you’re inconsistent or you’re growing.  We will continue to work with those 44 players  before deciding on the team because maybe next week you will see one of those players and he might  surprise you”. Regan concludes, “That squad will meet regularly at the new National Performance Centre and will get support in terms of coaching, but we’ll also look at things like diet, sports psycology, biomechanics, nutrition - the whole package, to try and make a rounded athlete”.

Those sort of aspects were only touched upon when I was coming through the national framework, and I think that  with the importance now placed on fitness and athleticism in the modern game, they’re more important than ever.  Hopefully the Scottish FA will fully commit to their strategy, and I think they will, but the players also have to buy into that philosophy.  I think the selection process has to be based not only on skill and natural technical ability, but also on the dedication and attitude of the individual, something from my experience that doesn’t always happen in football.  If I was a coach, I would rather work with individuals who are fully committed, but may not be as technically gifted, than players who have great ability but not the application to use it effectively.

A good coach working within a driven development programme is essential, but there are so many other factors that go into producing the next top player.  The increased focus on sport and fitness at a young age along with the Scottish FA’s new Performance strategy will hopefully give our kids the tools to make it in the professional game at the highest level.  It’s essential for the future of Scottish football that the national side are able to qualify and compete at major championships again.  I’m hopeful that with the overwhelming realisation by our governing body and others who can influence our game that we have a lot of work to do, we’re able to take that vitally important step on a long road to making the goal a reality.

Craig Easton is a professional football player with more than two hundred appearances in the Scottish top flight - most of them with Dundee United - and with 22 Scottish Under 21 caps.  Currently at Torquay, he has just finished a degree in Professional Sports Writing and Broadcasting at Staffordshire University.  He can be followed on Twitter.